How to travel safely during this winter holiday season

A safe holiday season will require everyone to be cautious, experts said.

December 22, 2020, 8:56 AM

With 309,449 deaths from COVID-19, the 2020 holiday season comes at a critical time in the trajectory of the nation's public health. This is a pivotal moment for the U.S. to make a change in the nation's fight against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC recently released its winter holiday guidance document with its travel recommendations. Unequivocally, the agency says, “the safest way to celebrate winter holidays is to celebrate at home with the people who live with you."

Winter travel plans can place our nation at risk of repeating the Thanksgiving COVID-19 surge, said John Brownstein, Ph.D., chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and a Harvard University professor.

"Try to stick to your household, find outside activities when possible ... and make sure kids can get back to school after the holidays," Brownstein told ABC News.

Leaving your home may pose some risk to yourself and others while COVID-19 surges, especially during flu season.

PHOTO: Passengers check-in for a United Airlines flight at Los Angeles International Airport ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday in Los Angeles, California, November 25, 2020.
Passengers check-in for a United Airlines flight at Los Angeles International Airport ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday in Los Angeles, California, November 25, 2020. - US health authorities cautioned Americans on traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday, as the coronavirus spreads out of control. The recommendation was issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the government's health protection agency.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

"Don't be a disease spreader ... nobody wants that holiday gift," Dr. Henry Wu, assistant professor at the Emory University School of Medicine, said in a statement.

A safe holiday season will require everyone to be cautious, experts said.

Before traveling, ask yourself whether it's a safe idea. Will you see anyone who is at risk of getting very sick from COVID-19? You might be placing your elderly, sick and immunocompromised loved ones in danger.

Is COVID-19 prevalent where I might be traveling? This would increase your chances of catching the virus and bringing it back to your home.

Are the hospitals in that area overwhelmed? If you or any of your loved ones get sick, you might be in a health care environment that is lacking rooms, staff or equipment.

Have I or the people I may see been exposed to others in the past 14 days? We may have been exposed without even knowing it.

Will the travel involve trains, buses, airplanes or situations where I cannot maintain 6 feet of distance? Environments like these can increase the risk of bringing the virus to your holiday events.

If you do decide to travel for the holidays, "Do not let your guard down on every step of your trip," urged Wu. There are steps that all of us can take to make our winter travel plans safer.

First, get your flu shot as soon as possible. Flu cases are rising along with COVID-19. Getting the flu shot is a critical way to protect your community, your loved ones and yourself from influenza. In the setting of the COVID-19 pandemic, getting a flu shot can be an important way to prevent adding cases of influenza to our hospital systems already overburdened with COVID-19.

If you do attend a gathering, be a safe guest and bring your own food, drinks and dishes. Wear a mask with others and avoid shouting or singing. Stay home if you’re feeling sick or may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

"If you are hosting an in-person event, set an example," Wu said.

Communicate with guests beforehand so all come prepared for a safe event. Only invite a small number of guests from your local community and congregate in an outdoor area, Wu said. Provide hand sanitizer and have extra masks on hand. If you make the riskier decision of gathering indoors, open windows and have a fan blowing air outside. Play low-volume music to avoid shouting and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.

PHOTO: A Boeing 737 MAX of Brazilian airline Gol lands at Salgado Filho airport in Porto Alegre, Brazil on December 9, 2020.
A Boeing 737 MAX of Brazilian airline Gol lands at Salgado Filho airport in Porto Alegre, Brazil on December 9, 2020. - More than 20 months after it was grounded following two deadly crashes, Boeing's 737 MAX returned to the skies Wednesday with an incident-free commercial flight in Brazil, said AFP journalists on board. Low-cost airline Gol's Flight 4104 from Sao Paulo arrived safely in the southern city of Porto Alegre about 70 minutes after take-off using the revamped jet, in a first that Boeing hopes will turn the page on a badly damaging crisis in the wake of the twin crashes.
Silvio Avila/AFP via Getty Images

"Informal, in-person gatherings represent a large part of what is increasing transmission," Brownstein said.

While the COVID-19 pandemic will make this holiday more difficult, it does not mean that all fun and bonding must be canceled. Sit down with friends or family members and get creative about how you can all celebrate the holidays in a safe way.

Consider shipping gifts ahead of time and organizing a virtual gift exchange. Fill the home with decorations and deliver warm season’s greetings by mail or at the doorstep. Collaborate on a holiday playlist and organize a virtual dance party or reunion. Attend virtual religious ceremonies. Enjoy the wintery weather and build snow forts or make snow angels outside, distanced from others.

By thinking creatively, you can make this season a time for new memories, fun traditions while ensuring a safe new year for all.

Nicholas Nissen, M.D., is a clinical fellow and resident physician at Harvard Medical School and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

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